There was one moment around Wednesday’s marathon House Judiciary Committee hearing on President Donald Trump’s impeachment that spoke volumes about the great political chasm in America as the 2010s come to an end — and it has nothing to do with Ukraine, quid pro quos, a “perfect” phone call or even the unmentionable name of a presidential offspring.
Actually, it happened right after the hearing in which four distinguished constitutional law professors — occasionally invoking the 18th-century writings of scholar Samuel Johnson or the Founders’ Federalist Papers — staged an informed debate over both the meaning of impeachment and how it applied to Trump’s misconduct.
“All I’ve got to say is, if you love America,” the right-wing Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert told a gaggle of reporters, about to summon his best-yet-lame inner Waylon Jennings, “mamas don’t let your babies grow up to go to Harvard or Stanford Law School.”
Maybe it was all Gohmert had to say, but it said so much — about all the resentment, about the political right’s deep belief that academia looks down its collective nose at the people who actually “love America,” about contempt for knowledge … and how we got Trump. But it was also noteworthy because Gohmert said the too-often quiet part out loud.
If there’s a great untold story of the United States over the last 75 years, and the rocky road from post-World War II triumphalism to the fracturing of the American dream, it is the role that higher education — who goes, how on earth to pay for it, and the “culture wars” over what is or isn’t taught on campus — has played in making us all go crazy.
The divide between elites who can afford the best schools money can buy and a middle class drowning in college debt surely poses a threat to whether America can compete in a knowledge-based world economy, but while no one was looking, the college gap has become a political crisis as well. In 2019, a staggering 59% of Gohmert’s Republican Party told pollsters that colleges and universities have a negative impact on American life, a number that has flipped in just four years. And we’ve increasingly seen in the Trump era how loathing for college translates into contempt for knowledge — which in turn has weakened support for a free press or the need for action on scientists’ dire warnings on climate change.
No wonder that — arguably for the first time ever — both college affordability and the mind-boggling $1.5 trillion-with-a-T owed by millions who’ve already attended have become front-burner issues in the 2020 elections. Democrats seeking to oust Trump next November seem to agree that attacking the cost of college is a way to gain middle-class voters. But their endless campaign has already seen a divide between the sweeping ambitions of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who want to tax the wealthy to wipe out almost all debt and make public college free to everyone, and moderate rivals who say that’s just too ambitious and too expensive.
Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor who’s wowed pundits with a spike in the polls, especially in first-in-the-nation Iowa, is an avatar of the college-affordability-has-to-be-affordable crowd. And so the 37-year-old White House hopeful — who personally excelled at the current game, gaining admission to Harvard and becoming a Rhodes scholar — made news recently with his $500-million plan that aims to build on the status quo. The Hoosier wants to sharply increase spending on Pell Grants — the government’s main affordability vehicle for decades — and on career-oriented training while also aiming to make public universities free, but only for families making less than $100,000.
In the political rollout of his plan, Buttigieg tried to turn class consciousness on its head, insisting his lower ambition than Warren’s or Sanders’ plans is in fact an attack on the idea that millionaire’s kids would benefit from a universal plan. “Instead of providing free college tuition for the children of millionaires and billionaires,” the candidate tweeted, “I will open doors of opportunity for Americans who choose not to go to college with massive investments in apprenticeships, workforce training, and lifelong learning programs.”
But critics pounced. “To me, it’s a plan that somebody would have proposed in the 1990s,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Temple University professor of higher-education policy and sociology, told me. Goldrick-Rab is a college-affordability guru, routinely sounded out by politicos, including the Buttigieg campaign. She said that there are things to like in his plan — such as a food-insecurity proposal for community college students — but that overall his limited vision overlooks a rarely mentioned asset of bolder proposals: The concept that higher education is a public good. “He’s missing,” she said, “a major opportunity, frankly, to move beyond class warfare in higher ed.”
The naysayers who bash “free college” are intentionally missing the broader idea of universalism, which — applied to the current crisis — means providing commonsense career pathways for anyone in that 18-24 age bracket as a social obligation, much as public school up to age 18 became seen as a necessity during the 20th century. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project recently outlined the universalist approach as one in which “all paths into a career are fully supported by public benefits and services.”
What Pete Buttigieg — and all the others hoping to score pragmatism points with their small-ball ideas for higher ed — doesn’t get is that college no longer is just an economic problem, that this class conflict we’ve watched escalate over decades is directly tied to America’s democratic crack-up. In 1940, on the eve of World War II, college wasn’t divisive, because so few went, with less than 5% of adults holding four-year diplomas. That changed as the GI Bill offered new opportunities for returning vets and as public colleges that were free in some places (California, New York City) and cheap elsewhere were a boon to a rapidly growing middle class.
The steep rise in college attendance had social consequences that few saw coming. In the 1960s, crowded campuses were incubators for the civil rights movement (at North Carolina A&T and Fisk University), academic freedom (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement), and opposing the Vietnam War. It’s no accident that college profs — “pointy-headed intellectuals,” Spiro Agnew called them — became a bête noire of the political right as more fiscally conservative governments raised public college tuition to levels once unthinkable. A remarkably prescient New York Times op-ed warned, “Class War Over College Tuition” — in 1974.
But 1974's crisis metastasized into a much bigger mess in 2019 with more ramifications than I have column inches here — a one-size-fits-all system that demands a college sheepskin yet makes that goal out of reach for some, saddles others with obscene debts and persuades even the upper middle class to channel most of its resources into “getting your kid in the right school.” One of the only-in-hindsight predictable outcomes has been the flood of resentment, especially in the Rust Belt — where good-paying jobs that don’t require college have all but disappeared.
In 2016, Pennsylvania shocked pundits by voting narrowly for Trump, and you have to wonder if anger inspired by the state’s public college costs and debt levels, among the nation’s highest, with enrollment now shrinking, was a hidden factor.
The Pete Buttigiegs, Amy Klobuchars, Joe Bidens and others who say America can’t afford radical change in higher education are missing the much bigger picture — that the nation can’t afford the implosion of democracy that’s taking place without a dramatic change in thinking. This generation and the ones that follow not only need learning to become better citizens, but they need to respect the basic notion that knowledge is the only way to stave off today’s threats ranging from global warming to rising authoritarianism. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up in a nation that doesn’t see advanced education as a universal human right.
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.